NEW YORK — Photography usually faces outward, but not always. Both “Robert Heinecken: Object Matter” and “A World of Its Own: Photographic Practices in the Studio” face inward. They run at the Museum of Modern Art through Sept. 7 and Oct. 5, respectively.
Facing outward means a focus on the external world. So it’s not quite accurate to say that Heinecken (1931-2006) faced inward. His work does, that’s true. It’s artifice about artifice, not artifice about flesh-and-blood people and three-dimensional reality. But Heinecken made his collages and videos and assemblages and manipulated photographs with the external world very much in mind. Indignation and fascination — with contemporary American life, with advertising and media, with the obtuseness and hypocrisy that underlay all three — drove his work. Heinecken didn’t just face outward. He stared, squinted, and rolled his eyes.
His work can look passé in a clever-undergraduate way. Heinecken’s studies of media — such as his “revised” or “compromised” magazines (actual publications, like Time or The New Yorker, reworked in forthrightly inappropriate ways) — seem today like media studies commonplaces. But seen as a chapter in art history — and a reproach to certain contemporary cultural assumptions — the work is anything but passé.
Like the Pop artists, Heinecken was confronting a world in which mediated reality loomed ever larger in the daily life of the culture — in daily lives, period. Where Warhol and Oldenburg and Lichtenstein created works that were bright and playful and defiantly superficial, Heinecken was creating works that were dark and combative and defiantly subversive. Both the Pop artists and Heinecken were consumers and repurposers of media modes and imagery. He went beyond them in being a kind of archeologist of the media, one of the first.
Heinecken liked to describe himself as a “para-photographer.” The term emphasized his non-traditional approach. Even when making a straight (or at least semi-straight) photograph, he was still working athwart the medium. But there’s a further sense, of paratrooper, with its connotations of fierce, unexpected assault. The Pop artists, not to belabor the comparison, now look conservative in so many ways. For one thing, they were effecting a rapprochement between high and low culture. Confrontation, not rapprochement, was Heinecken’s working method. There was nothing conservative about him, right down to his stylistic restlessness. The look of a Heinecken piece doesn’t announces its authorship. The pungency of the ideas does.
There’s at least one work in the show where visual delight matches intellectual weight. It’s “The S. S. Copyright Project: ‘On Photography,’ ” a large black-and-white collage diptych (each panel is just under 4 feet square). The subtitle tells you that S. S. stands for Susan Sontag, whose book “On Photography” was getting a lot of attention in 1978, when Heinecken made the collages. They’re identically posed mosaic portraits of Sontag made up of Polaroids. The Polaroids forming one of the portraits consist of text from “On Photography.” Conceptually, this is neat (in both senses of the word). More important, it’s marvelous to look at — right down to the fierce tactility of the many staples Heinecken used to affix the Polaroids. Walter Pater famously said that all art aspires to the condition of music. One wonders if all of Heinecken’s art didn’t aspire to the condition of sculpture. He wanted ideas to have the impact of solid matter — or, as MoMA would have it, “object matter.”
The earliest work in the show, “Shadow of Figure,” is a dislocated female nude from 1962. It’s a harbinger. Throughout his career, Heinecken addressed sex and sexuality — and in a way that gives his art a surprising relevance right now. We live at a time when finger-wagging and lip-smacking have joined in unholy alliance. It’s there in books like Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander trilogy and in films like David Fincher’s adaptation of the first Larsson book, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” and Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Abominable male treatment of women is held up for prolonged, even luxuriant inspection — with the author or filmmaker professing to condemn the treatment. Uh-huh.
Such exploitation of exploitation is a classic case of having it both ways. Heinecken’s work provides a welcome corrective. There’s nothing arousing about his images. The more sexualized they get, the less sexy they become. Not that they were ever sexy in the first place. For sex isn’t what he confronts. It’s the way sex is commercialized by advertising, the media, society. The work of few artists better demonstrates that the best way never to sell out is never to buy in.
If Heinecken’s work faces inward, the many photographs and several videos in “A World of Its Own” really face inward. That world is the photographer’s studio, which can variously be — and in this show is — a haven, a home, a hothouse, a performance space, a neutral corner or, as the title of a mad-scientist-bravura Man Ray photograph has it, a “Laboratory of the Future.”
There are some wonderful images here: a Josef Sudek view of his studio, and another taken through the studio’s iced-over window; a knockout sort-of still life, “Nailpolish,” by the Israeli photographer Elad Lassry; a bowl of Brussels sprouts (they have the sculptural heft of boulders) taken by the Englishman Charles Harry Jones around 1900.
In the studio, anything goes. The messiness and logistics of the outside world don’t impinge (assuming the rent’s been paid). Experimentation can flourish. That experimentation can be technical, aesthetic, even emotional.
Closing off the outside world can exact a price. There’s an airlessness to “A World of Its Own,” a consistent coldness. Facing outward risks all kinds of problems, from the mundanely practical (weather, lighting, passersby) to the conceptually profound (the role of chance, the limits of artistic vision when confronting external reality). But such problems invariably generate heat. Figuratively as well as literally, photography can result from light without heat. Life can’t, or not for long, anyway. Oxygen helps too.